I wonder why you’re reading this review of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, by Oliver Burkeman. Perhaps you’re deciding whether this book is worthy of your attention.
I liked it a lot, okay? I don’t know if you will. I thought it was good. But that might not convince you. Maybe you need more.
And fair enough. There are so many non-fiction books, after all, and you have limited time to read them. You ought to decide which will be most gainful—which title will yield the most tidbits of useful knowledge that you can sprinkle over the rest of your life. Is this book a worthwhile investment?
When viewed judiciously, this reveals itself to be a serious decision. Think of opportunity cost, and the compounding returns of useful knowledge. If you can pick the optimal non-fiction title today, the one that will be most useful, then you can optimize your life more tomorrow, which then implies that you’ll be better equipped to further optimize yourself the next day, in a compounding virtuous cycle which will allow you to finally master your allotted portion of temporality and wrestle existence into submission at last. Pick the wrong book, and you could be stuck in an inferior timeline, or, worse, in this current laggard semi-existence, forever.
Other than Four Thousand Weeks, there is the red book with a lurid cover that could teach you how to achieve the perfect body, and thus finally secure the adoration you deserve. There is the blue book with a dove on it that could usher you towards a state of enlightenment, in which you would execute all of your tasks in a state of tranquility and efficiency. There is the black book explicating how powerful people impose their schemes upon the land of mortals, which help could help you seize the impressive existence that is clearly your birthright. And then there is Four Thousand Weeks.
Important stuff! Before you make the leap, it behooves you to read some reviews by trusted sources like me.
In fact, reading reviews is probably more valuable than reading books, most of the time. Each review, after all, only takes up a small chunk of time. And you’re fine with spending those. You have lots of small chunks, which you can fit around the larger, more meaningful tasks that you will begin doing maybe tomorrow.
Yes, tomorrow is better than today for that big chunk of time. It’s not yet the moment for your moment to shine. Eventually, it will be—eventually, you’ll fit in a big chunk inside the little chunks, which are filled with things like book reviews. Finally, soon, you’ll empty your schedule for a day or two and begin sculpting your masterpiece, which you will definitely not set down the moment you begin, the moment you put your phone away and feel the yawning of forever, the doubt and the strangeness of your particular bones sitting uneasily in your working chair.
Reading reviews rather than books will save time for that, especially since the review will probably tell you all you need to know, the essence, the takeaway. The ten minutes you spend skimming this will tell you everything you need to know about time management, and then all of your other problems will solve themselves, thanks to your newly corrected scheduling routines.
Maybe it’ll even give you a cute little dictum that you can bring up at dinner someday. Casually, while reaching for the chablis, you will recite a paraphrased piece of wisdom from Four Thousand Weeks, paraphrased in this review. And you will stun your peers, you will seem luminescent and gigantic, you will be wise, giving, admirable, fuckable, in tasteful candlelight.
(If you have time for dinner. It’s hard to find time for dinner. And then hard to sit still during dinner. And then what do you talk about? Your plans haven’t come to fruition yet, and it’s frustrating to talk about the incomplete farce you perpetuate now, where you juggle, and dither, and dismiss your quiet sense of dread as an issue you can get rid of by getting that mattress cooling gadget you keep hearing about on Twitter, which you’ll stop being addicted to soon.)
But as you consume this review, and others—as you browse the secondary literature, and form an impression of the book before you’ve read it, like the body of a lover you might never touch— Four Thousand Weeks starts to seem a little weird.
It’s a book on time management, but reviewers don’t furnish any helpful tips that it contains. In fact, mainly the message you’re getting, by proxy, from Four Thousand Weeks, which you’re pretty sure you’ve basically absorbed at this point, is that your life is being devoured by your effort to use it more effectively.
For example. You try to answer email promptly, but find that being better at answering email makes people email you more often. You try to fit in a couple of valuable experiences, but then find that experiences seem thin and shabby when you try to value them. You schedule leisure time but are filled with anxiety about whether the leisure will make you more productive.
So, fine. Cool premise. That’s a nice start. You believe all of that. Kind of.
But shouldn’t the book, then, tell you how to manage your email better? Or really maximize your experience, so that, this time, you don’t feel disheartened by moments you’ve carefully set aside for spiritual growth? Shouldn’t it be a comprehensive guide that can help you finally put your life in working order?
After all, someone must know. There must be someone who has figured out how to ride this mechanical pony. Surely there are adults who keep up with the news, their careers, their hobbies, their God, their children, their spouses, the other members of their polycule. Surely someone has figured out how to ride the avalanche of current events. Do they use that new browser? That new revolutionary email system? That person should write a book about how you, too, can have the well-ordered life they do.
Maybe that’s this Burkeman guy. You hope so. Because you’ve read a lot of productivity books, and you’re starting to feel slightly desperate. At day’s end, after precisely 15 minutes of meditation, and 15 minutes of interval training, and five meetings, and one call with your life coach, and a first date with J, the third first date of this month, and a quick glance at your new copy of one of Elon Musks’s favorite books, from which you harness a few notes for your personal knowledge management system, you somehow feel like nothing has been accomplished. What you hear, as you close your eyes, and try to sleep, is the scraping sound of your personal boulder, shoved briefly up the incline, coming to rest heavily once again upon your outstretched palms.
What if Four Thousand Weeks can’t help you with that? It would be sad. It would be painful. You might want your money back. You might think, for a moment, that you’re not going to figure this out, that you can’t, that the problem of finitude is insoluble. You might suspect, for a moment, that your desire to make no little plans will, perpetually, be at odds with the universe’s ability to make, in the end, all plans little. It’s like that Modest Mouse lyric you can never fully get out of your head: “everyone’s life ends, no-one ever completes it.”
But then you’ll snap out of it. One day you’ll get it together. Modest Mouse is just some dumb indie band you listened to when you were a teenager, when you felt like you had all the time in the world, before you learned what life is really about: doing everything you can.
Anyway, Four Thousand Weeks is a short book. It won’t waste much of your time. Like it or not, you’ll soon be able to move onto the next thing.
This is a brilliant review of that book. Bravo!
This review is both mega-mega AND super-here, at the same time, it's wizardry.